Divine Rivals Is Basically Rebecca Ross’s Magical You’ve Got MailBooks Features Rebecca Ross
Rebecca Ross is perhaps one of the most underrated fantasy writers of our current moment. Her work spans both the adult and YA fantasy genres and encompasses everything from an adventure to restoring a rightful queen (The Queen’s Rising) and the story of a magical dream warden (Dreams Lie Beneath) to a vividly imagined island full of elemental magic and cursed clans at odds (the “Elements of Cadence” series). Her adult debut A River Enchanted was one of the best fantasy books to hit shelves last year, and it seems highly likely her latest YA effort, Divine Rivals, will find its way onto one of our year-end best-of lists to close out 2023.
A novel about a pair of rival journalists who fall in love in the shadow of a devastating war with the aid of a pair of magical typewriters, Divine Rivals, like many of Ross’s previous books, takes well-worn character types and narrative tropes and mixes them together into something that feels remarkably new and fresh. From gods eager to use humans as pawns in their ancient conflict to the trauma their seemingly neverending battles inflict on average people, Ross deftly explores the impact of war on everything from relationships and professional opportunities to class struggles and family strife. That she does so through a You’ve Got Mail-style enemies-to-lovers romance is just the icing on the cake. (This book is real good, y’all, is what I’m saying.)
We got the chance to chat with Ross herself about her latest novel, what to expect from the Divine Rivals sequel, the origins of Iris and Roman’s relationship, and lots more.
Paste: Personally, I’ve loved every one of your books. And I am so impressed by the breadth of your knowledge and interest as a writer, just in terms of all the different settings and kinds of stories that your books tell. Do you think there’s something that ties your works together thematically, character-wise, or are you just thinking “I’m going to play in different worlds and have fun today”?
Rebecca Ross: Recently I’ve been pushing myself to think more outside the box and take on more challenging storytelling. But I do think sometimes, now that I have almost seven books out, it is easy to look back at them and see that they do all seem woven together with these invisible threads.
I think you can tell the certain topics that I’m really interested in or things that I care about. And I do really love character-driven stories. I love found family. I love family being present on the page. I typically also focus on education being very important. And, of course, I love to have a little romance. So I think with Divine Rivals, in particular, it was the first time I let myself write a romance. Because typically my romances are a little bit more of a subplot [in my books]. And I was writing this book in 2020 and so I was like, “I want to write a book about two people falling in love and let that be the driving force of a story,” which was so refreshing and a lot of fun to write and exactly what I needed at the time.
Paste: So tell me a little bit about Divine Rivals and where the inspiration for it came from. You said that it came from wanting to tell a romance. And how did it grow from that?
Ross: Looking back at 2020, I was revising A River Enchanted and Dreams Lie Beneath. But I went a really long time without drafting anything new. I went for about 11 months, which was really unusual for me. I think it was the stress of the pandemic and not knowing what was going to happen, and just being worried and anxious that I just could not write a single word. Thankfully I was busy with these revisions, but when November hit I was like, “I really need to sit down and try to figure out what’s next,” because going almost a year without writing something new was almost painful for me because I love drafting. I like to keep brainstorming journals and it’s where I just write down random things, especially when I’m in between projects, just to help keep the ideas going.
So I pulled out a new journal and I just started writing down some random things. And one of the lines that came out was, “A girl who writes letters to her missing brother, and the boy who reads them.” And I was really intrigued by that sentence. And so I let myself kind of begin to scheme, well, what’s going on? Why is her brother missing? Who is she? Who is this boy who’s getting the letters? How are the letters getting sent? And I just knew instantly it was typewriters, these typewriters are linked. And that kind of sent me back in time with this World War I era. And I could see her brother had gone to war and was missing at war. And so I saw Iris very vividly, very early on. So I started writing and the first draft was completely her point of view. I didn’t even have Roman’s point of view in the first draft, but I saw her very clearly.
Then the moment Roman comes in, she’s in the office and Roman comes sauntering up to her, I was like, okay, I’m very intrigued by these two people. And I could see they had a rivalry. And again, as in most of my stories, I discover a lot as I go. I’m very much a gardener discovery type of writer where I have an intriguing idea and I just have to sit down and begin asking questions. But I think I knew that this book was going to be very focused on the characters, on them coming of age amidst this very harrowing backdrop of war, but also on them falling in love.
I basically wrote the book for myself, the first draft. And my critique partner, Isabel Ibanez, she was reading as I was writing— she knows all my weaknesses and so she can help me get my manuscripts ready before my agent or my editor ever sees the—but she said I should add Roman’s point of view. So I went back and I added his perspective in. And I really love that I did that because it gives, I think, so much breadth and insight to the story because we’re seeing through his eyes as well. So yeah, that’s kind of in a nutshell how the story came to be. But I really do think that certain books find you at just the right moment, as readers and as writers. And I think this book found me at just the right moment when I needed it.
Paste: One of the things that’s so interesting to me is how lived-in and real this world feels. it still feels like you thought about it a lot, and did a lot of homework to make this world real in the background—its history, its religion, its gods. How much time did you have to spend plotting all this out? And how much of it did you have to leave on the cutting room floor?
Ross: Because I’m a discovery writer, it can be a little tricky—first drafts are pretty messy, with me throwing down all these things on the page. And then with revisions, that’s me really trying to focus it, streamline it, and ask myself questions like why is this the way it is?
One of the first things I saw was Dacre and Enva, and I wrote that myth about them. And then really kind of expanded from that. World War I instantly kind of grounds the reader, but I didn’t want to bog the story down with a bunch of details. I wanted to try to keep the pace moving—because one thing I think fantasy authors can struggle with is info-dumping things—and make sure it was a very organic way that the reader is becoming familiar with the world.
I did have some books that helped me, as far as trench warfare, as far as researching what were the trenches like. And there are also a few films I watched that I thought were just very visually compelling, Testament of Youth and 1917, and I mention all of this in my acknowledgments in the book. And of course, I loved the idea of having Iris and Roman working at a newspaper, kind of that nostalgic feel. And so there’s something kind of magical about this idea of letters disappearing underneath wardrobe doors, I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and I loved those books.
Paste: Enemies to lovers is one of my all-time favorite tropes. So just from the synopsis of the book, I was excited for Iris and Roman. Tell me a little bit about how you see their relationship, and how that came together for you.
Ross: I also love enemies to lovers, in particular the rivals to lovers, which is a subset [of that genre]. I really love the idea of two people kind of competing for something and how that forces them to have close proximity and there’s lots of angst. And of course one of them eventually is going to win. So what happens when that happens? Is that person who wins, is he going to like the fact that he won or not? So just a lot of fun things to play with here.
But again, when I was writing that first chapter, just from the get-go, I could sense they definitely have some tension. Roman comes from a very privileged background. His family’s very wealthy. On the outside, he seems like he has everything he could ever want. And then Iris is coming from a different class, she’s working class, and she’s had to drop out of school to help cover the bills while her mother’s struggling with alcoholism. So there’s just a lot that Iris is personally going through.
They’re both personally going through a lot, but I love the idea of them being able to be, even while they’re in the presence of one another kind of sparring and having shields up, that when they start writing, they’re very vulnerable. And they’re able to be vulnerable because there’s this protection of the letter. I just really love the idea of having people fall in love—You’ve Got Mail that’s one of my favorite movies—so I thought, one day, I will write about two people who don’t like each other in person, but who fall in love through their words and their letters. So this was that book. I finally had all the elements together to pull that off.
Paste: One of the other things I love about all of your books is how averse they are to love triangles. And this is an industry that almost seems to mandate them, whether we want to read them or not. Instead, your books are all about a central romance and the internal things that are going on with them versus an external third party. Was that a deliberate decision or something that just kind of keeps happening?
Ross: Kind of both. I just don’t think I could write a good love triangle, to be honest. I think they’re very difficult to pull off and I honestly don’t read very much of them either. So it’s not really a trope that I’m very drawn to because I think sometimes, it can get really frustrating reading them. That’s not to say there haven’t been some that have been really good. I just don’t think I could pull that off. I just want to be able to focus on the relationship without that interfering, I guess.
Paste: What can you tell me about the sequel? Anything? What’s next for Iris and Roman?
Ross: The sequel! Let me think about what I can say. The title is Ruthless Vows. There’s a lot of longing. We obviously are going to see a lot of the gods. I know they’re a little bit off the page in the first book because I wanted to focus on the humans. And I didn’t really want to write a book about the gods, I want to write a book about humans who have to deal with that. And after you’ve read the end of Divine Rivals, you know I’m opening up a new chapter with the gods very present. I don’t want to give anything too much away. But in some ways [this story] mirrors the first book too. And so I’ll just leave it at that.
Paste: So excited! And I always ask this last question just for purely selfish reasons, although I’m sure plenty of people also want to know this too—what are you as an author consuming as a reader? What are you reading that you love right now?
Ross: Oh my gosh, let me tell you. My TBR is huge right now. I feel like there are so many books out that I’ve bought and I haven’t read just because my time seems… I’m really struggling to really set aside time for reading. And so a lot of my reading is for blurbs these days.
I am hoping this summer to begin reading the huge pile of books. Some on my TBR: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries [by Heather Fawcett], I’m really excited to read that one. One Dark Window [by Rachel Gillig]. But right now I am reading A Multitude of Dreams by Mara Rutherford. That comes out I think in September. It’s a fall book. It’s kind of inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, so has some sinister undertones. And it’s very, very good. Kind of creepy, but still beautifully written. So I’m really enjoying that one. And I also just read Morgan is My Name by Sophie Keetch, and that one I think is coming out in June, another absolutely fabulous Celtic fantasy about Morgan le Fay. And The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill [by Rowenna Miller]. I’ve been reading a lot of very fairy-type books lately!
Divine Rivals is available now from Wednesday Books.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.